This is not your typical immigration saga. Stories of families relocating to another country, dealing with cultural displacement, and (hopefully) making a go of it have become increasingly commonplace. Yelena Akhtiorskaya would like to turn those conventions on their head.
To be fair, she succeeds at that goal quite well–and with a great degree of humor. Panic in a Suitcase is about the Nasmertovs, who left Odessa to come to America–only to settle in a Brighton Beach, Brooklyn neighborhood that offers many of the comforts of home and they are surrounded by people who know their customs and speak their language. The cultural displacement they face is staggeringly different from the kind typically featured in novels. The Nasmertovs are now stuck between two worlds: the old and the new. How do you adapt to new surroundings when you have even the most obscure comforts of the old? How do you let go and move on when you could almost be in your old country if you squinted your eyes?
Fans of Gary Shteyngart will particularly take to Yelena’s quirky sense of humor and style of writing. For me, I tend to tire of his style about halfway through his novels, and that trend continues with Yelena–except at a slightly accelerated rate. She gets bonus points for wild originality (and for making a great point about how globalization has drastically changed the immigration story), and she’s definitely a talent to watch. But it’s hard to get lost in Panic in a Suitcase.